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Expect surprises in wide-open NFL playoffs

Who do you like? 

Which teams will end up in Super Bowl LVI, and which will be the last one standing on Feb. 13? 

As Week 18 comes to a close on Sunday, marking the end to the 2021 NFL regular season, 11 of the 14 playoff berths have been clinched. Three spots remain open, with seven teams still alive: two spots in the AFC with five teams in chase and one in the NFC with two teams battling. 

Given that no team has asserted itself as dominant this season, these NFL playoffs might be the most wide-open in recent memory. There really isn’t a no-brainer favorite in either conference. The closest thing to that may be the Packers, who have the league’s best record at 13-3 and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the likely NFL MVP. 

The Buccaneers began the season with all 22 starters from their Super Bowl championship team returning and looked like as much of a lock as any in the league. Yet, as the playoffs begin next week, even with Tom Brady, do you really trust the Bucs, who despite their 12-4 record are in the throes of the Antonio Brown mess they helped create and are short-handed at receiver? 

The Titans (11-5) are the current No. 1 seed in the AFC, but are they a team you absolutely, positively expect to be in the Super Bowl — even with it likely they will have running back Derrick Henry back for the postseason? 

Aaron Rodgers will likely win this year's NFL MVP award.
Aaron Rodgers will likely win this year’s NFL MVP award.
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The Chiefs (11-5) entered the season as the Super Bowl favorite in the AFC, having played in the previous two Super Bowls, winning one and losing one. Kansas City was 3-4 at one point this season before righting itself and winning eight in a row before losing to the Bengals last Sunday. 

The Bills (10-6) have struggled at times this season despite being one of the preseason favorites with quarterback Josh Allen one of the league’s rising stars. And the Brady-less Patriots (10-6) are back in the tournament and a potential tough out, but hardly dominant. 

I believe this postseason will be the year of the dark horse — at least in the AFC. That’s why I love the Bengals (10-6), who since their bye in Week 10, are 5-2 with wins over the Chiefs, Ravens, Broncos and Steelers and an average margin of victory of 15.6 points. Their two losses in that stretch came to the Chargers, in a close game, and the 49ers, in overtime. 

Joe Burrow, the victory-cigar-smoking Bengals quarterback, looks like a bigger star by the day, and his top receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, is the most likely NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. As AFC North champions, they’ll host at least one playoff game, and I believe they’ll win a postseason game for the first time since the 1990 season — more than 31 years ago. 

The Bengals are 0-8 in the postseason since their last playoff victory, a 41-14 win over the Houston Oilers on Jan. 6, 1991. 

The Bengals were 2-14 in 2019 and 4-11-1 last season. Good story. But not good enough to make it to the Super Bowl. I still think Bill Belichick and the Patriots are a dangerous team and will emerge to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. 

Joe Burrow and the Bengals clinched a playoff berth in Week 17.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals clinched a playoff berth in Week 17.

If a Patriots-Buccaneers Super Bowl showdown pitting Belichick and Brady sounds too delicious to come true, that’s probably because it is. I don’t think Tampa Bay will get past Rodgers and the Packers, who have home-field advantage. 

So, it’ll be the Packers and Patriots playing on Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium with the Packers emerging as the champs. 

That’ll send us all into an offseason of more “As Aaron Rodgers’ World Turns’’ drama and intrigue. 

Will he retire and ride off into the sunset? Does he want out of Green Bay to prove he can win somewhere else? Or did this season make him fall back in love with the Packers’ front office? 

That saga, along with free agency and the draft, will carry us to training camp 2022 so we can start this all over again.

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